“Horse latitudes” is a nautical term referring to areas thirty degrees north and south of the equator. Ships sailing these waters often find themselves becalmed, or thrown off course by baffling, unpredictable winds. Paul Muldoon’s new volume of poems, Horse Latitudes, begins with a sequence of nineteen sonnets obliquely concerned with nineteen battles all beginning with the letter B: some are famous, such as the battles of Bannockburn, the Boyne, Bosworth Field, and Blenheim; others, like Baginbun, Benburb, Blaye, and Bazentin, less so. The sonnets often highlight the role played by horses or mules in these battles, and include a series of jibes at a present-day commander in chief bogged down or becalmed in another battleground beginning with B: Bush in Baghdad.
Intercut with the sequence’s historical snapshots and topical allusions are scenes from a different kind of battle—that of the poet’s former lover, Carlotta, with cancer. The poet and Carlotta appear to have met up again in a hotel in Nashville, where one night on television they watch a journalist sarcastically dubbed “some Xenophon”
embedded with the 5th Marines
in the old Sunni Triangle
make a half-assed attempt to untangle
the ghastly from the price of gasoline.
Puns like this have always been crucial to the way Muldoon’s poems conjugate the events of history; they work almost like Brechtian Verfremdungseffekte, distancing effects that prevent us from indulging in easy empathies or simplistic identifications. His wordplay enacts a fundamental or existential embeddedness, revealing over and again the impossibility of untangling individual words or actions from the dizzying webs of language and history. Like the baffling breezes that confuse sailors in the horse latitudes, Muldoon’s verbal sleights of hand insistently push the poem in unforeseen directions, make it drift into weird patterns and peculiar symmetries. Like his previous nine volumes, Horse Latitudes presents a fiendishly complex weather system that can only be negotiated with patience, open-mindedness, an enormous dictionary, and frequent recourse to Wikipedia.
Most of the horses and mules that feature in this volume’s title sequence come to a grisly end. Muldoon grew up in the Moy, a village in rural Armagh in Northern Ireland. His father was a farm laborer, and his mother a schoolteacher. Horses and mules occur time and again in his poems about his childhood and his native region. “Dancers at the Moy,” for instance, published in his first collection, New Weather (1973), tells of a disastrous horse fair held in the Moy in the economically depressed 1920s. Hearing that some traders are about to arrive to buy horses for a military campaign in “One or another Greek war,” the local populace deluges the town with mares and stallions in hope of a quick profit, or at least relief from starvation. However,
No band of Athenians
Arrived at the Moy fair
To buy for their campaign,
Peace having been declared
And a treaty signed.
Starving, the horses end up eating each other “Like people in famine”—a comparison that …